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Medieval "Long Knife" - Langes Messer

Medieval "Long Knife" - Langes Messer
Middle Ages Monday, 8. July 2024

Although sword was fairly accessible as sidearm even to the common people during the High and Late Middle Ages, it was not exclusively the most widespread sidearme — at least not in the territory of the Bohemian Kingdom and the adjacent German-speaking regions of the Holy Roman Empire. That distinction goes to the so-called "Long Knife" (Germ.: Messer / Langes Messer) — a weapon with a single-edged, knife-like blade, whose overall length could range from approximately 30 cm to lengths comparable to one-handed swords.

Replica of a Langes Messer dated to the 15th century, inspired by an original find from site Jemnice (Czech Republic).

And what about the history of this weapon? The origins of Messers lie in the early Middle Ages, but the precise beginnings are still not fully clear. According to one theory, Messers might have evolved from single-edged, knife-like weapons known as seaxes. These weapons, more associated with Germanic (later Viking) and Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups, are only sparsely evidenced in the Czech territory compared to neighboring Germany, where saxes were abundant. According to recent theories, seaxes themselves might have evolved the other way around—from ordinary knives. It is also unproven that the early development of Messers in the early Middle Ages was influenced by the sabres of Avar and Old Hungarian warriors, who penetrated Central Europe from the east. Therefore, the most likely theory remains that of Czech archaeologist Petr Žákovský, MA, PhD, who suggests that Messers evolved from early medieval combat knives (dated from approximately the 7th-9th centuries), found in the Czech territory, with blades measuring 20 cm or more. Weapons classified as combat knives, dated to subsequent centuries, are also evidenced in the Czech territory, although their handle construction differs from later Messers. The question of what Messers looked like in the 13th and 14th centuries remains open because there are few archaeological finds and preserved Messers in museums from these two centuries, and researchers must therefore rely on not entirely reliable iconography—book illuminations, panel paintings, artworks, and of course, sculptures. Most of the Messers found in the Czech Republic through archaeological research or identified in older museum collections date from the Late Middle Ages, i.e., from the 15th to the early 16th century.

Replica of a Langes Messer inspired by an original find from archeological site Moravský Krumlov (Czech Republic). Original one dated to the XV. Century (may be Hussite Wars 1419-1434).

Late medieval Messers had a construction similar to knives, but in addition to holes for rivets holding the grips, they also had an additional hole for a so-called nagel, which functioned like a crossguard in combat and protected the knuckles of the hand holding the Messer. Moreover, there were also Messers equipped with a traditional sword crossguard or a crossguard in the shape of a boat. As already mentioned, the length of the blade could vary among Messers.

Two-handed Messer (Langmesser) or "Kriegsmesser", c. 1500. Replica.

Therefore, in general, Messers are usually classified according to blade length as “knife-like” (practically the same size as knives), “one-handed” (with an overall length close to one-handed swords), and “two-handed” (also called “two-handed sabres” or "Kriegsmesser" - i. e. "War Knife"). The last group consists of weapons dating from the end of the 15th century to the first quarter of the 16th century, wielded with both hands, and similar in overall length and dimensions to the longswords.

Fencing with Messers and "Hungarian Shields". Fencing Manual Gladiatoria, Ms. Germ. Quart. 16., 55r. Wikimedia Commons

Messers, due to their simplicity and low purchase cost, were not only popular sidearm for infantry in the Late Middle Ages but also a favored means of self-defense in civilian life. They were widely carried by both villagers and townsfolk. Besides simple Messers for practical everyday use, there are also known luxuriously crafted examples intended for wealthy townsmen and the nobility. Nobles traditionally used swords as sidearms, but the Messer was a welcome accessory to their attire or a tool for hunting under certain conditions. Due to its massive spread, the Messer also became a subject of interest for medieval fencing masters, and Messer fencing appeared in fencing manuals from the late Middle Ages to the early 17th century.


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